Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko – A Short Biography
27 kwietnia 2010 | 10:24 | maj / maz Ⓒ Ⓟ
He was born of the Sunday of 14 September 1947 in the village of Okopy, Białystok area. He was baptised in the family parish church in Suchowola under the name of Alfons (as a seminarian in the fifth year he changed the name into Jerzy).
He was the third out of five children, one of whom died as a child. His parents, Marianna and Władysław, were farmers. Although the living conditions were austere, the parents brought up their children with great care and devotion. God, Holy Mass and a prayer of the entire family were priorities. They would often talk about the true history of Poland. Alek knew that his uncle, a soldier of the Home Army, had died of Soviet hands in 1945.
He attended primary school and high school in Suchowola. He was an average student. While likeable, he was rather shy and quiet, nondescript. He took the First Communion and was confirmed in 1956. As a school student he was an altar boy at the parish church. As his mother recalls, he would get up at 5am every day, irrespective of the weather, to perform his duties of an acolyte during Holy Mass. The decision to choose priesthood was made after the final exam in high school. In 1965 he entered the Archdiocesan Seminary in Warsaw.
A Seminarian in the Military
He is remembered by schoolmates, fellow acolytes and seminarians as an ordinary person, with no outstanding talents. His iron character and personality of a spiritual leader became prominent for the first time at the onset of his second year in the seminary, when shortly after obtaining the cassock Alek went for 2 years to the army. Drafting seminarians was an oppressive measure applied with respect to the Church in Poland. Seminarians were stationing in special high-restriction units and were subjected to regular atheistic indoctrination, pressed to abandon their priesthood or to start collaborating with the regime. Popiełuszko was adamant, launched opposition and buoyed up his friends, even if in return he was punished by ridicule, many hours of exercises, crawling in the cold, or cleaning toilets in a gas mask. The stay in the army led to a deterioration of his health. In the early 1970, after returning to the seminary, he fell gravely ill and was nearly miraculously saved. Later on his health problems would never abate.
A Priest for the People
On 28 May 1972 in the Archdiocesan Cathedral of St. John in Warsaw Jerzy Popiełuszko received the Holy Orders from Poland’s Primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. As his friend, Fr. Bogdan Liniewski recalls, soon both of them adopted a motto for their ministry: ‘we will never become Holy Joes attending to formalities, stuck with the vicarage’. Fr. Jerzy wished to dedicate himself to the faithful. In his inaugural Holy Mass pictures he put the motto: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18).
From 1972 through 1979 he was a curate in the following parishes: of the Holy Trinity in Ząbki, of Our Lady the Queen of Poland in Anin and of the Child Jesus in Warsaw’s district of Żoliborz. He did not attract much attention to himself then, either. The pastors and fellow-curates remember him as a run-of-the-mill priest who would sometimes be afraid of preaching and cherished his small creature comforts. It turned out, however, that he had an extraordinary gift of entering into good relations with people. He liked people, took interest in their affairs and listened to them. His parishioners knew that he may be relied upon in times of trouble and he was especially sensitised to the hardships of the sick. He was on very friendly terms with many families; parishioners would visit him, invite him to their places and would accompany him on trips. All this time he was a minister but never converted others by force.
Mounting health problems seriously affected his ministry. When in January 1979 he fainted at the altar and spent the following month in hospital, Cardinal Wyszyński transferred him to the chaplaincy at the student Church of St. Anne in Warsaw. In this seemingly less strenuous ministry he was to be in charge mainly of medical students. The year he spent there was enough to establish friendships. A friend and a trusted and good advisor, he was also a perfect confessor. He and the students held trips to the mountains together also when he was no longer their official chaplain. Their close ties can be seen in their following him to the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Żoliborz, where Popiełuszko moved in as a resident in May 1980.
A chaplain of the health service
Again, what promised to be a moderate duty turned out to require much effort. While Fr. Popiełuszko as a resident was only to assist in parish duties, he was dedicated heart and soul to ministry, especially with students of medicine and the fast developing chaplaincy of the health service. The position of a chaplain of medical personnel in Warsaw was officially entrusted to him in February 1979. When he celebrated the first Holy Mass for nurses in the Res Sacra Miser Chapel, there was only one attendee. Before long, however, the Mass became very popular. After the service he would deliver an address related to professional ethics. He held retreats and days of reflection during Advent and Lent. He dedicated a lot of energy to the defence of the unborn and to the need of providing concrete assistance to pregnant women in a difficult situation. With a view to providing medical personnel with knowledge on Catholic bioethics he established a specialised medical library. Fr. Popiełuszko believed that the formation of doctors and nurses is an important area of pastoral care and despite his numerous other duties he never gave it up.
At the threshold of great transformations
On the memorable Sunday of 31 August 1980, when the entire country was on strike, foundry workers in the ‘Warszawa’ ironworks were looking for a priest who might celebrate Holy Mass in the factory. Cardinal Wyszyński dispatched his chaplain to find a proper person. The chaplain, without any prior plan, pulled in front of St. Stanislaus Kostka’s Church. In the sacristy it turned out that all the priests were busy but at that moment Fr. Popiełuszko entered the room and agreed to go. By accident, it would seem, his great spiritual adventure of ministry for workers began. After the Mass he remained in the foundry till the evening that day and since that time came to visit a few times a week. The workers visited him with entire families, wives and children. The straightforward and direct priest who spoke a normal simple language was extraordinary. All of a sudden people would come to him to confess after many years, to ask him to bless their marriages and baptise them as adults. His close relations with the foundry workers meant first-hand experience of the essence of the transformations of the day. It was Fr. Popiełuszko who prepared the Holy Mass during which Bishop Zbigniew Kraszewski blessed the standard of ‘Solidarity’ of the ‘Warszawa’ ironworks and it was him who together with his workers brought John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem exercens to the attendees of the First National Congress of ‘Solidarity’ in Gdańsk. He celebrated daily Holy Mass for the participants of the Congress. In October and November 1981 he assisted the protesting medical students in Warsaw and cadets of the Fire Brigade Academy. As the then pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka’s Church, Fr. Teofil Bogucki recalled, Fr. Jerzy’s presence during the strike of the Academy had a powerful impact on his formation and directed his further actions.
Overcome evil with good
From the onset of martial law Fr. Popiełuszko was the target of Secret Police. Officers often arrived at the vicarage. He miraculously escaped detention. Remaining at liberty, he applied himself wholeheartedly to providing help for the interned, their families and all who found themselves in a tight position. For instance, he coordinated the distribution of gifts in the parish and converted his room into a warehouse. He launched a campaign for medications from the West. He was looking for the poor and gave away all he could, even his own shoes. He himself wore old and threadbare clothes. Those who remember him from that time stress that he was not in any way attached to material things. His assistance was also psychological and spiritual. He visited prisoners and appeared regularly in court rooms, providing the sought-after support to many.
As of February 1982, he took over the celebrations of Holy Masses for Poland, launched by the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka’s Church, Fr. Teofil Bogucki. The Masses took place each last Sunday of the month and before long started to attract a huge congregation. The meetings of prayer and patriotic spirit had an unforgettable air and it was then that Fr. Jerzy’s charisma became so prominent. He knew well true human problems and spoke about them in his sermons. He drew on the teaching of Cardinal Wyszyński and John Paul II, introducing it in a simple and clear language. He spoke about the dignity of the human person and the resultant primacy of the individual within a social order, about freedom, which must be related to goodness, truth and love, about an attitude of solidarity, the need for commitment to build a common good, and about human rights. This was a straightforward lecture about the social teaching of the Church.
His words were listened to by workers and professors, opposition and party members. People would come from all across Poland and month after month there were more of them. No wonder soon the regime unleashed provocations, harassment and pressure on the curia to restrict the activity of the priest. He was allegedly too much involved in politics and accused of instigating to manifestations. These were trumped up accusations; in his sermons Popiełuszko did not refer to politics even if he did speak about truth which is often cumbersome. Still, they invariably focused on the Gospel, in the spirit of St. Paul’s message: ‘Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21). Holy Masses for Poland led to countless conversions; many people returned to the Church after a few or a few dozen years; many asked to be baptised. The faithful left the church having found inner peace and quiet, ready to regard their enemies with love. In this they resembled Fr. Jerzy himself; in the first winter of martial law, to his friends’ great surprise, he distributed hot coffee among the soldiers and policemen stationing on the streets.
Each month the atmosphere around Fr. Popiełuszko grew more and more tense. He was constantly followed and knew that his flat and phone were tapped. There were also instances of intimidation. In December 1983 the priest was interrogated at a prosecution office, a search was conducted in a flat his aunt offered at his disposal, where rounds of ammunition previously planted by the Secret Police and many other compromising materials were found. At that time he was detained for two days and released only after Bishop Dąbrowski’s intervention. However, he was unable to escape libellous articles in the press and many other long interrogations that distracted him from his pastoral work. In August 1984 Popiełuszko was waiting for another trial, which did not take place on account of the amnesty on the occasion of the forty years of communism in Poland. Instead, he became the target of a severe negative campaign in the media, launched by the Soviet paper Isviestia and continued in Poland e.g. by Jerzy Urban, who accused Fr. Jerzy of holding ‘séances of hatred’. The Office for Religions filed ever stricter letters to the Episcopate.
Of frail health, Popiełuszko led a destructive life. He did not care about himself, played down all ailments and against doctors’ orders did not consent to staying in hospital. He would not stop working. In September 1983, in agreement with Lech Wałęsa, he organised the first pilgrimage of workers to Jasna Góra (the idea continued until today). The following year he received anonymous phone calls: ‘If you go to Jasna Góra again you are dead’. He went, as he had got anonymous threats before. He knew he might die. Those around him were likewise conscious of the risks involved. Asked by foundry workers, Cardinal Glemp suggested that Popiełuszko should leave for Rome to study but would not put pressure upon him. Fr. Jerzy would not go; he said he could not possibly leave those who had trusted him and that this would be tantamount to betrayal.
His friends recall that his last months were devoted to setting things in order, profound prayer and frequent confessions. Most probably he had his last confession a day or two before his abduction.
An attempted assassination of Fr. Jerzy, meant to pass for a car accident, took place on 13 October 1984. On 19 October 1984, accompanied by his driver Waldemar Chrostowski, Fr. Jerzy left for Bydgoszcz, where he celebrated Holy Mass and presided over a Rosary service in the Church of Polish Martyr Brothers. The last words of his reflection on the mysteries of the Rosary were as follows: ‘Let us pray to stay free from fear, intimidation, and first and foremost from the desire of retaliation and violence’. On the return journey, in the evening the priest’s car was stopped by road police. In reality these were officers of Secret Police wearing uniforms of road policemen: Grzegorz Piotrowski, Waldemar Chmielewski and Leszek Pękala. Waldemar Chrostowski miraculously managed to free himself; but for this fact Fr. Jerzy’s death would have been attributed to unknown perpetrators. The murderers were certain of impunity, as they had received from their superior, Adam Pietruszka, special passes that allowed them to move freely across country. Tied and with a gag in his mouth, he was knocked unconscious a few times with a wooden club. When the killers were throwing the mutilated body in a foil bag, with stones added for greater weight, into the river on a dam near Włocławek, it was not clear whether Fr. Popiełuszko was still alive.
The body was discovered only on October 30. All that time Poles prayed for the return of Fr. Jerzy. The news of the priest’s abduction and murder electrified the whole world. Popiełuszko’s funeral on 3 November 1984 is estimated to have gathered from 600,000 to 800,000 people from all over the country. First requests for his beatification were filed with the Warsaw Curia only two days later.
Milena Kindziuk, Świadek prawdy. Życie i śmierć księdza Jerzego Popiełuszko, Częstochowa 2004
Ewa K. Czaczkowska, Tomasz Wiścicki, Ksiądz Jerzy Popiełuszko, Warszawa, 2008
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